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Drunk biking targeted by Denver: Advocates worry policy could encourage drunk driving

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Cyclists in Denver will now be subject to a new Denver Police Department enforcement policy that says drunk bikers, like drunk drivers, can be charged with DUI. The change, announced internally last week, is designed to align with state laws, officials say, though some bike advocates worry this kind of enforcement could potentially encourage drunk driving in cars.

This shift comes as the result of a 2011 complaint from a Denver resident who, while riding his scooter, collided with a cyclist. He was arrested for drunk driving, but the cyclist was not, according to CBS4.

Following the complaint, says Lieutenant Robert Rock, who heads DPD's Traffic Investigations Unit, he researched Denver's policy on DUIs for cyclists and discovered that the city's practices did not match Colorado policy.

"It was brought to our attention that our policy was in contradiction with state law," he says, "And I couldn't figure out why. Then, the decision was made to go ahead and...bring our policy in line with state law."

Previously, DPD was not enforcing the state law and charging cyclists for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But now, the department has officially informed employees that it will be enforcing the policy in accordance with Colorado Revised Statutes.

In a November 19 letter to DPD officers, Denver Police Chief Robert White writes:

It is now the policy of the Denver Police Department to take appropriate enforcement action regarding bicyclists who are suspected to be operating under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs in accordance with Colorado Revised Statutes. The policy is as follows:

Operators of bicycles may be charged with DUI, DWAI or DUID after conferring with the DUI Unit or TIU under the provisions of C.R.S. §42-4-1301. Bicycle operators are required to obey all traffic laws as they apply to motor vehicle operators and may be contacted as a result of a traffic law violation. Officers will ask the operator to perform voluntary roadsides if indicators of intoxication are present. Officers must articulate probable cause to arrest the operator of the bicycle for DUI, DWAI or DUID in the same manner as they would for the driver of a motor vehicle. The bicycle operator will be offered a blood test or a breath test.

In Rock's view, this policy is about encouraging safe behavior and enforcing statewide law. He is still in the process of determining how a DUI for a cyclist would affect that individual's driver's license record, noting that it's unclear at this time whether a DUI arrest for cycling would lead to some kind of point violation.

"The emphasis here is being responsible," he says. "You can drive your car to a restaurant or a bar and have a drink or two over a period of time and...it can be okay. It's the same thing on a bicycle. But we don't want people riding to liquor establishments, getting hammered, then riding their bikes. You are on the roadway.... Riding your bike is still an activity that requires you to do multiple things at once.... It's still very dangerous.... This is just encouraging people to be responsible, no matter what."

Biking under the influence is a misdemeanor just like drunk driving, he says, explaining that this new enforcement could potentially lead to jail time or a substantial fine.

"The intent is more to enforce it when it's related to an accident," Rock adds. "But clearly if there's an obvious violation, if an officer sees a person is intoxicated, then they have this option."

Brad Evans, founder of the Denver Cruiser Ride, the famous Wednesday night group ride that includes stops at bars, says he wants to work with DPD in regard to the new policy. But he's concerned about potential unintended consequences.

"My fear is...is it forcing people back to cars?" asks Evans. "We've seen [biking] as an alternative to drinking and driving, and now that's off the table."

Continue for more from Brad Evans and BikeDenver. Evans says he always encourages responsible behavior at the Cruiser Ride. He even launched a specific bike safety campaign this year. But he still thinks cycling is a safer option for people going to bars and worries about how strict enforcement of a DUI policy for cyclists could encourage bad choices.

"My concern is, is this the best use of resources? And is this a menace? Is people riding on bikes [after drinking] a menace?" he wonders. "The raw question is...is it as bad to ride your bike after drinking as it is to drive a car?... What are the ramifications of those two things?"

He explains that if cyclists make bad decisions and ride under the influence, they are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else -- whereas drunk driving has well-documented dangers that are much more serious.

Referencing his so-called Cruiser commandments, he adds, "If you choose to drink, for the love of God, just do it responsibly.... We are not gonna be your mommy.... Know your limits.

"We've always told people, don't be stupid. Don't get completely obliterated on your bike and ride home on the sidewalk and cause an accident."

Piep van Heuven, executive director of BikeDenver, the city's main advocacy group for cyclists, says impaired individuals should always be encouraged to find alternative, safe ways to get home and not use any vehicle -- and she notes that cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as those who drive.

Even so, she hopes police prioritize enforcement that saves the most lives.

"My concern is that there is a difference between the danger that you create if you are driving in a vehicle versus [riding a bike]," she says, adding, "One concern would be that, if you are under the influence, you are actually gonna be safer and feel more protected when you are in a vehicle yourself...but you are more of a danger to others on the roadway."

Bike advocates are wary of any policy that could inadvertently incentivize drunk driving.

Van Heuven says BikeDenver will monitor how the number of DUIs change with this new policy implementation.

"It will be interesting to examine Denver's drunk driving statistics a year from now to see if there are any positive or negative changes that result from the policy change," she says.

She also says she is interested to see how many of the traffic fatalities that were tied to drunk driving actually resulted from improper use of a bicycle.

For his part, DPD's Rock says he doesn't think the policy would encourage people to drive drunk and that if someone is going to make that kind of dangerous choice, it may be difficult to stop him or her regardless of the circumstance.

"You have other options.... There are designated drivers -- we promote that every year. There's taking cabs -- we promote that every year," he says. "If it's close enough to bike to, it's probably close enough to walk to. It comes back down to, we want to encourage responsible drinking activities."

The policy is not intended to target any specific organization, he says -- but he emphasizes that there have been incidents of crashes involving intoxicated cyclists.

"We have no plans at this point and time to go out and do specific riding-under-the-influence type enforcement actions," he says. "It's just one more law that we enforce."

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Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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